Over 280 killed in three-train crash in India; church volunteers aid over 1,000 injured in collision

A drone view shows derailed coaches after three passenger trains collided in Balasore district in the eastern state of Odisha, India, June 3, 2023. More than 280 people died when three trains crashed. More than 1,000 others were wounded. (OSV News photo/Reuters)

BALASORE, India (OSV News) — In one of deadliest crashes in decades in India, more than 280 people died when three trains collided 137 miles southwest of Kolkata, the home of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity. Over 1,000 people were injured.

The Associated Press reported that chaotic scenes that erupted at night after the derailment June 2. According to the BBC, citing Indian officials, several carriages from the Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express derailed in Balasore district, hitting a stationary goods train. Several of its coaches ended up on the opposite track. Then the third train — Howrah Superfast Express traveling from Yesvantpur to Howrah — hit the overturned carriages.

The death toll from one of India’s worst train accidents is likely to rise, a Catholic priest who was coordinating the Catholic Church’s voluntary work at the accident site in eastern India, told UCA News.

“Many trapped in the mangled compartments of the crashed trains are yet to be brought out,” said Father Lijo George, social work director of the Balasore Diocese in Odisha state.

“The death toll is likely to increase as many are still trapped in the mangled coaches,” the priest told UCA News June 3 the night after the accident.

“By 10 p.m. (June 2) we were able to rescue the survivors. After that it was about picking up dead bodies,” Sudhanshu Sarangi, director of Odisha state’s fire and emergency department, told AP. “This is very, very tragic. I have never seen anything like this in my career.”

Pope Francis said June 3 he was “deeply saddened to learn of the immense loss of life caused by the train crash” and assured “all affected by this tragedy of his spiritual closeness.” He made the comments in a telegram to Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the apostolic nuncio to India, sent on the pontiff’s behalf by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

The pope entrusted the souls of the deceased “to the loving mercy of the Almighty,” and sent his “heartfelt condolences to those who mourn their loss.” He offered prayers “for the many injured and for the efforts of the emergency service personnel,” invoking upon everyone “the divine gifts of courage and consolation.”

A man named Suryaveer told the BBC his mother and grandmother were on the train, going to the city to buy medicines. He found his grandmother alive, but his mother died in the crash.

Another local resident, Girija Shankar Rath, told the BBC that “there was chaos. There was a loud sound and there was smoke all around.”

“At least 280 bodies have been kept in a school and another building close to Balasore district hospital where hundreds injured are undergoing treatment,” Father George told UCA News.

“Our priests and nuns along with church volunteers are helping the wounded passengers in the hospital to contact their family members and relatives,” the priest said.

The church volunteers also are arranging food, clothing, masks, gloves and other assistance to the rescue teams and medical teams working in the hospital with limited space, he said.

“Doctors and other paramedical teams from nearby areas have already reached the hospital and are providing treatment to the injured passengers and surgeries are also going on for those in need,” the priest said.

“The people are kept in hospital corridors and other places in the hospital campus following shortage of beds, but everyone is taken care of,” Father George added.

The district administration has blocked the main routes leading to the hospital from the accident site for the general public to avoid obstacles to the ambulances and rescue teams involved in bringing the injured to the hospital.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a message said he was “distressed by the train accident in Odisha. In this hour of grief, my thoughts are with the bereaved families. May the injured recover soon.”

Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has ordered a high-level probe into the train accident.

“The accident was unfortunate, and the rescue operation began shortly after the incident was reported to his ministry,” he said.

The Catholic bishops’ conference of India in a statement offered “prayers and sympathies on the sad demise of so many people” and wished for quick recovery of the injured.

The bishops also called on the government “to find out the cause of such a huge mishap and to take steps to see that in future such massive tragedies are avoided.”

India is the world’s most populous country with 1.42 billion people. It has the largest train network under one management in the world. Despite government efforts to improve rail safety, several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways.

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